Anyone stuck in a Cold War style zero-sum mentality might be confused by events in and around Turkey over the last several days. On the one hand, the United States agreed to withdraw troops from Syria not long after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a phone conversation with Donald Trump in which he explained Ankara’s position that the presence of YPG/PKK terrorists on the Syrian border with Turkey is an unacceptable threat to Turkey’s security and sovereignty.
Rather than risk splitting the NATO alliance, the United States took the opposite approach and decided to withdraw its troops from Syria which likely paves the wave for a Turkish anti-terror operation in northern Syria aimed at neutralising the YPG/PKK east of the River Euphrates once the US withdrawal has been compelted. In a further sign of good will directed towards Turkey, the United States has clinched a deal to sell the Patriot missile system to Ankara for $3.5 billion.
And yet Turkey’s early stage but nevertheless significant rapprochement with the United States is only half of the story. For the last two days, President Erdoğan has hosted a large Iranian delegation of dignitaries headed by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Erdoğan set the tone for the meetings by reciting a friendship poem by the Iranian poet Hafez Shirazi and beyond this, he did so in Farsi. This elicited load applause from the Iranian President and his colleges as Iranians tend to remain deeply proud of their profound poetic traditions.
When things got down to business, the fraternal attitude remained strong. The meetings proved that Turkey’s non-aligned, independent and robustly multipolar foreign policy is able not only to balance between countries with minor disputes but is able to do so between the US and Iran, two countries which detest one another but which are both partners to Turkey. This is not only the case in respect of Turkey’s warm relations with Iran but it also applies to Turkey’s warm relations with both China and Russia.
Speaking at a news conference beside Rouhani, Erdoğan stated,
“There are so many steps that Turkey and Iran can take together to end the clashes in our region and ensure a peaceful environment.
…We will continue to be in solidarity with brotherly Iran at a time when pressures on Iran mounts which we find unjust”.
The two countries are currently set to agree on a means of currency exchange that will skirt US sanctions on Tehran while the Turkish President pledged to increase the level of bilateral trade with Iran from $11 billion per annum to $30 billion. In spit of the present thaw in Turkey-US relations, Erdoğan made his country’s position on its Iranian neighbour and partner explicitly clear:
“We must stop the U.S. sanction decision on Iran from impeding us to reach our target….
…Nobody should think that we will end our economic and commercial relations with Iran because of sanctions. I believe we will turn sanctions against Iran into an opportunity in our relations”.
In many respects, this week’s high-level Turkey-Iran summit encapsulates the great strides that the bilateral and neighbourly partnership has made over the last year. Now that the conflict in Syria is entering a political process, past disagreements on a Syria strategy regarding Iran and Turkey’s positions will likely be minimised to the point of eventually disappearing entirely, while even before the announcement of the US pull-out, both countries along with Russia had been successfully cooperating in efforts to bring peace to Syria in the Astana format.
In geopolitical relations, partnerships are formed as much on the basis of having shared goals as they are on the basis of facing shared challenges. While the modern histories of Iran and Turkey are highly divergent and while prior to the 20th century the Ottoman and Persian empires were great rivals, today, circumstance has drawn Ankara and Tehran closer than at any time prior to 1979.
The most immediate cause of the expanding partnership between Iran and Turkey is a desire on the part of both nations to expand their economic avenues within the wider Eurasian space. This is the case in respect of Turkey as the country looks to make inroads into markets that had been neglected in recent decades while for Iran, the desire to ‘look east and south’ has been motivated primarily by a post 1979 history of being largely cut off from western markets in spite of recent efforts of the European Union to preserve the status quo of the JCPOA (Iran nuclear deal) era.
During this year in particular, both nations found themselves on the receiving end of measures that Turkey’s President Erdoğan has described as “economic warfare” from the US. In the case of Iran, the country has experienced the re-imposition of “mega-sanctions” in line with Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the 2015 JCPOA. At the same time, Washington has doubled its steel and aluminium tariffs against Turkey, something which is significant as Turkey is among the top ten steel importers to the US. Even though the US lifted sanctions against two Turkish government ministers in the aftermath of the release of convicted terrorists and CIA asset Andrew Brunson, the tariffs remain, thus helping to bolster the attraction of Turkey’s economic partnerships throughout Asia.
The result of the aforementioned mechanisms of hybrid economic warfare in addition to speculation against both the Turkish Lira and Iranian Rial has meant that both nations have found that the US has caused a profound domestic inflationary spiral while working to cut of the international trading outlets of both nations. Although Turkey has worked to and largely succeeded at stabilising its currency in the final quarter of 2018, the lessons from a summer of negative speculation will not be forgotten, nor will their long term geopolitical implications be ignored. Because of this, in spite of the current thaw in Turkey-US relations, Turkey looks set to accelerate its partnerships in western Eurasia, south Asia and east Asia.
Against this background, both Turkey and Iran have drawn closer to each other throughout 2018. Today, Turkey continues to restate its pledge to continue transacting business with Iran in spite of sanctions while Turkey’s President went so far as to state that sanctions president the neighbouring powers an opportunity to enhance relations.
Furthermore, throughout a difficult summer for both nations, Iran consistently supported Ankara during the nadir of Turkey’s disputes with the United States.
Trump’s jubilation in inflicting economic hardship on its NATO ally Turkey is shameful. The U.S. has to rehabilitate its addiction to sanctions & bullying or entire world will unite — beyond verbal condemnations — to force it to.
We’ve stood with neighbours before, and will again now”.
Trump's jubilation in inflicting economic hardship on its NATO ally Turkey is shameful. The US has to rehabilitate its addiction to sanctions & bullying or entire world will unite—beyond verbal condemnations—to force it to. We’ve stood with neighbors before, and will again now.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) August 11, 2018
This statement of course came at a time when the PKK terror group’s Iranian branch PJAK continues to heighten tensions in north-western Iran. As a result, Iran and Turkey are not only threatened by similar hybrid economic warfare from the US, but both countries are also now threatened by a terror group whose Syrian division YPG, the US is actively allied with in Syria.
Just as Iran and Pakistan share a common enemy in the form of terrorists operating in the Pakistani province of Balochistan and the neighbouring Iranian province of Sistan and Baluchestan, so too do Iran and Turkey share a same cross-border enemy on the other side of the country in the form of the radical Kurdish terror group PKK and its Iranian branch PJAK.
In respect of this threat, Iranian authorities recently announced the murder of 10 Islamic Revolutionary Guards stationed in the Iran’s Marivan district near the Iraqi border. According to an official statement,
“The attack by the evil rebels and terrorists against a revolutionary border post and the explosion of a munitions depot caused the martyrdom of 10 fighters”.
This vicious act of terrorism ought to serve as a signal that it is necessary for Iran and Turkey to intensify their security partnership against a singular threat.
Given that Iran faces the same threat to its security and unity that Turkey faces, one would assume that it would behove Iran to publicly offer support for Turkey’s operations against the PKK near Iran’s border. Furthermore, as Iran is keen to retain its presence in Syria against the objections of both the United States and Russia, Iran coming out in opposition to the YPG/PKK’s presence in northern Syria could not only strengthen bonds between Tehran and Ankara but could convince many of those calling for Iran’s withdrawal from Syria to at least soften their tone.
In many ways, Turkey is already Iran’s most valuable regional partner and recent indications are that the partnership is already being strengthened now that Turkey and Iran face similar economic and security challenges which are largely from the same sources.
Turkey and Iran may have very different and at times confrontational histories, but the win-win mentality of the 21st century is the one thing that can help both neighbours develop a more positive relationship that will help create a more hopeful future for both the Iranian and Turkish peoples. The partnership has undoubtedly been strengthened by recent events, but more can yet be done to build further trust and cooperative mechanisms to ensure a long lasting positive partnership.
This week’s summit helps to draw a profound year in respect of widely growing Turkey-Iran relations to a close in a manner that will likely set the tone for a future of productive neighbourly relations, irrespective of Turkey’s other commitments and partnerships within the framework of multipolarity.